On China, India needs to show strategic patience
As the India-China talks on border issues concluded without a breakthrough, India needs to exercise strategic patience to resolve the border stand-off
The 19th round of the India-China corps commander-level meeting to resolve outstanding issues along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in eastern Ladakh concluded on August 14 without a breakthrough. There have been follow-up talks between the border commanders, leading to speculation that efforts are being made to register some forward movement ahead of a possible interaction between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and President Xi Jinping on the sidelines of the Brics Summit at Johannesburg. It is desirable to move towards disengagement of troops and de-escalation of tensions in border areas but that should be achieved while safeguarding our position on the ground and not driven by any artificial deadlines.
While dealing with China, strategic patience must be an essential component of our approach. We have the lesson of the Doklam imbroglio in 2017 — when an understanding on the pullback of troops was reached on the eve of the Brics summit at Xiamen in September 2017 appeared to resolve the matter but soon led to the Chinese entrenching their presence in the Doklam plateau of Bhutan.
Where do we stand today in terms of the resolution of the border stand-off, triggered by Chinese transgressions across LAC at multiple locations in eastern Ladakh, their induction of additional forces in excess of 60,000 troops (and counter-deployment by India), and their concerted efforts to alter the facts on the ground? Through protracted negotiations, there has been disengagement of troops at five friction points, though not before the deadly clash in the Galwan Valley in mid-June 2020. Reports suggest these understandings on disengagement involve the creation of buffer zones partly on our side of LAC and denial of access to our troops to several patrolling points they were visiting earlier.
The Chinese have, so far, not agreed to disengagement in Depsang and Demchok. In Depsang, the Chinese continue to prevent our border forces from resuming patrolling beyond five patrolling points in the Y-Junction. A similar denial of access to traditional patrolling routes in Demchok persists. There has been no significant de-escalation or de-induction of additional troops deployed by both sides since 2020, even during the winter months of three consecutive years.
India has rightly maintained that there cannot be restoration of normalcy in its relations with China as long as the state of the borders remains abnormal. After all, there is a clear understanding between the two countries that the continued development of their relations is predicated on the maintenance of peace and tranquillity in border areas, an agreement that was violated by China along with several other provisions of bilateral agreements on confidence-building measures (CBMs). Yet, China continues to press India to accept de-linkage, between the border issue and bilateral relations returning to the normal track. It seeks incremental gains along LAC and maintains a coercive stance through grey zone operations to consolidate those gains to create a new normal. Where do we go from here in terms of border management?
First, while the resolution of the current impasse is needed, we must not opt for quick-fix solutions. We must safeguard our perception of the LAC while investing in border infrastructure and enhanced deterrence.
Second, we should consider no-patrolling or buffer zones as a temporary measure, rather than a new normal, and push for the restoration of the status quo ante as of April 2020, even if it involves a long wait.
Third, it is imperative that we keep pressing for the resumption of patrolling in Depsang and Demchok. We can explore formalising the concept of overlapping patrolling which was already happening in many pockets, including in some areas of Depsang and Trig Heights.
Fourth, we have to work based on the new situation in border areas. India-China borders have become live, and are likely to remain so for quite some time. We cannot be in a hurry to de-induct additional troops as we are at a disadvantage when it comes to the re-induction of troops, given the asymmetry in border infrastructure and the nature of the terrain.
However, a situation of enhanced deployment of troops of both countries in close proximity is also not desirable as it can lead to accidents. We have to, therefore, keep exploring means of achieving de-escalation and de-induction of troops through patient negotiations.
While working out any such arrangement, we should insist on forced induction time as the primary determinant, rather than accepting numerical equivalence in troop levels. This understanding is suitably reflected in Article III (3) of the Military CBMs Agreement of 1996, which notes that, “the ceilings (on military forces and armaments to be kept by each side) shall be determined in conformity with the requirement of the principle of mutual and equal security, with due consideration being given to parameters such as the nature of the terrain, road communication and other infrastructure and time taken to induct / deinduct troops and armaments.”
Fifth, in the aftermath of the current disturbances along LAC, questions have been raised about the efficacy of the architecture of military CBMs negotiated since 1993. There are suggestions that we should jettison the current regime and work out new CBMs. As someone who was closely involved in negotiating existing protocols, I will argue that they have served us well and remain valid. Of course, they can be tweaked, but we should be wary of accepting any code of conduct proposed by China, which will hamper the development of infrastructure on our side of LAC. We have a second mover’s disadvantage when it comes to border infrastructure, which we cannot afford to freeze.
Finally, there is one key question we need to address: Do we return to the policy of constructive engagement with China as and when peace and tranquillity are restored? Frankly, there is no alternative to a broad stance of engagement with China as our largest neighbour. However, any such engagement has to be tempered with a heavy dose of realism, deterrence and balancing of China, recognising that China is our primary strategic challenge.
We will have to consciously reduce our economic dependence on China-dominated supply chains. This will be a long process, but our policy objectives should be clearly defined, along with the roadmap for realising them. It is also important to have an intensive dialogue — both internally and with China — on structural challenges in bilateral relations, which predate Galwan and will persist even if the situation along the borders eases up.
Ashok K Kantha is a former ambassador to China. The views expressed are personal